The Longest Day: GNW 100 miles Nov 11/12 2006
Time loses all meaning. My GPS/watch had long expired and my regular old watch had completely died so I had no idea of what the time was. We had been running, walking and shuffling relentlessly for a day and a night and most of another day. It felt strangely liberating yet I was constantly aware of the time pressure we were under. It was Sunday afternoon and we were about 150 km into the Great North Walk 100 miler. The cut off is 36 hours and although we had been surfing the cut-off with a healthy buffer of up to 2 hours, it was becoming clear that our progress over this last section from Checkpoint 6 to the finish on Patonga Beach was slower than we expected. We came upon a National Park sign saying “Patonga Beach 15 km” with an arrow pointing south. Fantastic! We were on track to finish with a good hour and a half up our sleeve. Spud said not to trust the sign. I said that even if it were a couple of kms out we were still good. An hour later I could hear Spud groan as I caught up to him sitting at the unmanned water drop. He had his map out and the distance was still 15km to Patonga! God, would this race never end?
Saturday morning at Toronto seemed like a lifetime ago. In some ways it was, as 37 of us had loaded up camelbaks of varying description and run off into the hills. I had settled in with a group of mostly familiar ultra faces, including Tim and Spud, with the three of us planning to run together as far as possible. The starting line-up was like a who’s who of ultra-runners. The morning was hot and I was sweating heavily under the load of 3.5 litres of water plus food and emergency gear. But our spirits were high and our hearts full of anticipation mixed with a healthy dose of fear. This was big. GNW is tough. Throw in 30 C plus temperatures and high humidity and you begin to wonder why we do this. But not for long. Once off the bitumen and rolling along the single track high above the valleys, there was no questioning why. This is what we do. This is who we are.
The race director Dave Byrnes gave a warning about the first section. I remember the same from last year when I did the 100 km version. He warns that the first leg is brutal and as tough as anything over the rest of the course. This is no understatement. There is a short respite when you drop back down to the valley to cross the highway. A quick visit to the service station to refill the water bottles and it was climbing again. You seem to be forever climbing or descending on this run. Take a look at the course profile and it tells the story: over 6000 metres of elevation gain and another 6000 metres of loss. After the big climb to Heaton’s Gap there was some fun technical stuff through the dense rain forest. By the time we reached CP1 we were warm and moving well. The field had already spread out as people found their pace. We were in and out in less than 10 minutes. Checkpoint volunteers wearing suits and runners no less. One of them asked me if it was uphill to the checkpoint. I looked at him quizzically. It’s all uphill, I said before realising he was taking the mickey. Someone filled our bladders while I quaffed a can of baked beans and grabbed food and maps for the next section. Spud and Tim were already off down the road.
It is hard to imagine a race where you can take 5 hours to get from CP to CP. The logistics weigh heavily on your mind. Have I got enough food? Will my water last? And the temperature was rising. I had flown in the day before from a week of Victorian weather that barely reached the low teens. And here I was with the forecast nightly minimum that was higher. No chance to acclimatise. Just keep the fluids up and take a Succeed Cap every hour. On the climbs, salty sweat ran into my eyes making them sting. And my achilles ached. I had injured it badly 3 weeks earlier at Brindabella and had only run twice since. To make matters worse, I had discovered that my trail shoes that I had planned to wear were shot (likely the cause of the achilles injury) so I would have to wear a new pair. Foot suicide: 100 miles on rough terrain with brand new shoes. Best not to think about it. Actually there was lots of denial going on this weekend. Spud have driven up the night before after a U2 concert and only managed a couple of hours sleep. But this was GNW, and you just had to be a part of it. As my achilles warmed up it troubled me less. If I spent too long stationary then it would stiffen and I would limp until it was loose again. Seemed to work. Just don’t spend too long at checkpoints.
There was some good running to be had through some fantastic bush with great views on this next section. Through the dense dark forest the track was tricky to follow. And leeches. Were there leeches? I looked down at one point and my gaiters had come to life. There were a dozen leeches concertinaing their merry way up to bare flesh. As I picked them off more would climb on. Despite the tricky navigation and leech picking, we made steady progress, even up the steep climb to the famous hugging pole where a photographer immortalised our torment. We were playing leapfrog with a couple of runners with rogaining backgrounds. If we slowed to a walk, Spud would start running again. We started calling him “Running Boy”. As opposed to us walking, whinging boys in the rear. At one point he took off in front of us and missed a clearly marked turn. We contemplated letting him go on before relenting and calling him back. Eventually we got away from the two rogainers. Then we passed Grant sitting in the shade cutting up a ripe mango. It looked so good, I joked that we could probably take him and share the spoils. He laughed but I fantasised about eating that mango for the rest of the run. Eventually we started the long drop to the Congewai Rd. I dreaded this section and for some reason remembered it as being all bitumen. It was nearly all gravel but still offered no respite. We could see runners spread out for kilometres ahead of us, baking in the afternoon sun.
On this long hot flat road that leads into the school at CP2 the sun was merciless. I pushed on ahead and Spud caught me up and ran alongside. We passed a sorry looking Hermie. He pulled out soon after with many others at CP2. I was cooking. My brain was frying inside my skull. The soles of my feet were burning. I had to get there as fast as possible. Tim pushed hard to catch up. Maybe too hard. I was looking forward to the rest while we waited for him. But the relentless heat on the exposed road beat down on Tim and by the time he shuffled in he was struggling. I stripped down to my shorts and went to the bathroom and washed my feet and face. It felt great. There was ice water for the bladders and our crew, Chub and Topcat had joined us now, and they had watermelon and oranges that went down a treat. Before I had redressed Tim had recovered and was ready to go. I gutsed down my can of beans, grabbed all my night gear, hoisted my heavy pack and limped off behind them, falling into step again.
This short out and back section had allowed us to see other runners. On our way in Dog had passed us as he turned into the farm. And Miss Gazelle looked strong not far behind him, despite wearing what looked like a pair of waders, presumably as a deterrent to snakes and leeches. O’Runner was coming in as we left, looking very dejected. Eagle and Lawrence had left just in front of us, making short work of the aid stations. Spud said we had been there over 30 minutes. It seemed like a lot less. I couldn’t believe it but Tim had benefited and my feet really needed the cool-off. We began the gradual climb through the forest. I felt very ordinary. The food and fluid from the checkpoint swished around my distended stomach. Tim deteriorated again as the heat drained all our resolve. As the trail kicked up we stopped and sat down. We discussed the merit of pulling out at 100 km. I had come into this race with no expectations, with a poor preparation that saw me only manage about 15km per week for the last 5 weeks due to injury and illness. The fatigue, heat and nausea now made it easy to think of stopping. Spud came back looking for us. We were definitely slowing him down. Off we went on the gruelling climb to the communication tower.
A goanna scurried across the track and startled us. It clawed its way up a tree and we admired its colour and classic prehistoric form. Then a bizarre thing happened: we were heading downhill. We knew this was wrong. This was the longest climb of the day and we had a long way to go. But up, not down. Tim caught up and we decided to back track, with much swearing and cursing. And there it was, under the goanna’s tree: the sign pointing UP the hill. We must have nearly stepped over the sign. On we went having lost only 15-20 minutes. This climb is brutal. I knew if I stopped again I would be in trouble. Tim fell behind and Spud waited to help him. At the top, I sat in the shade by the tower and when Tim arrived he was in bad shape. He was dizzy and clearly heat stressed. He stretched out on a log and I resisted the temptation of a photo at his lowest point. Very unlike me to be so merciful. Must have been the heat. We rested until he was up to continuing but as we ran along the ridgeline it was soon evident that he couldn’t go on.
Decision time. Going back would mean the end of more than just Tim’s race, which we would do if there were no other option. We looked at the map and worked out the next valley had the unmanned water drop with a serviceable road. We just needed to get a message through to our crew at CP3 where there was no phone reception. We tried the RD and then the Sat phone at CP3. No signal. If we continued into the valley we would have no signal there. So we rang someone whom we knew would be following the race and could keep trying on a landline to get through for us, Vegie Girl. We also rang Dog who was on the next peak and would be at CP3 soon. Confident the message would make it we descended into the valley along some of the best running with rolling single-track. Over a few fences, across Watagan Creek and up the short but seemingly steep climb to the road and the water drop. We refilled our bladders and sat Tim by the road. The crows circled overhead like buzzards waiting for a carcass. I relieved Tim of his last vegemite sandwich, figuring he wouldn’t need it as much as I did. How come someone else’s sandwich always tastes so much better? We waited for a while until he convinced us he would be OK and when we saw Bill striding through the paddock we knew that our time buffer had dried up and if Spud and I were going on it had to be now. So we were climbing again. Was there no end to the climbing? At least now the sun was sinking in the sky. Some respite. Well, so I thought.
Our buffer over the cut-off was gone. We would have to push hard and make the most of what little light we had left. I had recovered and was eating and drinking again. I had stopped taking salt tablets to reduce my fluid retention. Spud upped the pace and I settled in for the ride. We descended into the next valley in fading light but pushed up the other side and crossed Pig and Sow Road before we needed our lights. Into the basin we went, paying close attention to the trail markers and our maps. I was getting tired, the pace was telling. I recognised some trail markings and the infamous junction where so many had gone wrong last year. From here to CP3 lights kept coming back towards us as people returned to the junction before the climb out of the Basin. It is amazing how you forget great sections of the course. Kind of a self-preservation where your mind erases the tough stuff. Every light was potentially the CP. But after several runners had gone past we finally saw the glow sticks marking the impending aid station for real. And like a phoenix in the night, CP 3 opened up before us.
Where’s Tim? First check. He had been picked up by Chub and was asleep in the car. We could relax. I was offered a seat but was worried about my achilles so stayed standing. Our crew gave me some salty cream of vegetable soup. I had some coke, soup and then things went bad. Real bad, real fast. I sat down. People were offering me things and all I could do was let my head sink between my knees. My mind was swimming. My resolve drained away and I closed my eyes to stop things moving around me. Was this it? Time to stop? Would I have to pull out? No way. Not like this. I felt ill. I just wanted to curl up in a ball. I knew if I could get moving I would come good. I forced down more soup, grabbed new maps, hoisted my refilled pack and looked for Spud. Into the night we went. And out of it came Bill, bounding through the scrub. He was our barometer. We knew he would be close to the cut. We were still in this race. I dug deep into my reserves. Focus. I had added motivation to keep me going. A few weeks before the race a friend had suffered a serious spinal injury in an accident. When something hurt I swallowed my self-pity and just got on with it. No, I was not giving in that easily. Back on the trail I came good eventually. Well relatively good. I knew now for the first time, that I would finish this race. Focus, really focus. We were nearly halfway there.
I forgot how long the climb out of the Basin was. But I remembered the long downhill that brought us out onto the road at Cedar Brush Trackhead. It was great to be running through the night. And I definitely remembered the endless bitumen of the road into CP4. We planned to run as much of this as we could, but we both seemed low on energy. Or was I just slowing Spud down again? One thing for sure he had stopped singing U2 songs. During the walking stretches my mind would shut down and I would doze off only to wake when the surface changed to gravel on the shoulder of the road. This is the worst part of the entire course. Mind numbing, endless road. It goes on forever. Eventually the farm lights gave way to the town of Yarramalong and we ran into the school to flashing lights and clapping hands. I dropped into a chair and accepted a huge bowl of pasta. Stories of dropouts told the tale of a tough race under tough conditions. Spud decided to dress a couple of blisters and I pulled out some dressings but my checkpoint malaise had struck again. My cognitive functions seemed to leave me. For the whole next leg I felt guilty for not having dressed his blisters properly for him and promised to do so at the next CP. Horrie looked at me with a worried expression. You all right Whippet? No. You gonna pull out Whippet? Horrie, I’ve got a bucket full of excuses and any one of them would do right now, but they’re all soft. I’m going on. I ate as much food as I could while my pack was refilled and got up to go. It was clear that stopping at checkpoints was not good for me. I really wanted to finish this race. Now more than ever.
New territory. Last year I had only entered the 100km. So I had not seen the rest of the course. Spud led the way. I was struggling. We followed the markings and the maps, checking regularly and were soon back in dense bush. The directions were great but I was convinced we were going around in a big circle. I actually said to Spud I would love to see a trace of his GPS for where we had just been. I reckoned it would show a great big circle. I think his batteries had gone flat as well. He constantly checked the map and I scoured for trail markers and telltale footprints. Eventually we emerged again onto open fire trail and the ever-welcome little red GNW symbol kept reassuring me. The light started permeating the sky and gradually the veil of night lifted. We hit the unmanned water drop and topped up. We switched our lights off and ran easily in the pre-dawn light. As the day dawned I found new strength and picked up speed on the long descent. A single-track broke off to the right and the little red man said go this way. And this way I went. Straight down. I flicked the spotlight on my Apex back on as the technical single-track demanded more respect in this grey light. Spud called from behind to make sure I hadn’t missed the turn. Down, down we flew past Stringybark Point. It’s hard to believe we could run this fast after so long on our feet. It didn’t last for long. For every downhill there was a punishing up.
We were gradually seeing more civilisation and eventually climbing, yet again to Somersby and CP5. I felt good for the first time at a CP since CP1. We sorted through our stuff, grabbed food for the new day and ditched our night gear. I cleaned my teeth, always a godsend after hours and hours of sweet and then salty food. I guzzled some coke and later wished I had filled one of my bottles with more of that magic brew. We said goodbye to our crew with Tim taking over as replacement for the last two legs. And we were off. Quickest stop for the entire race so far. We were now following split directions on the new part of the course. Spud had paced Dog on the old course last year and found the change far more scenic despite being longer. He even started singing to me again. However, his thick Irish brogue meant I had no idea what he was singing. Probably U2 again. There was magnificent trail running following the Mooney Mooney Creek. Soft forest floor with a shady arch of trees and a gentle downhill grade. We flew along despite weary legs, conscious that the day would soon heat up. Our spirits were high. At one point there was even a sprinkle of rain that cooled us momentarily before simply increasing the humidity. As the cloud cover burnt off the sun bit into our exposed flesh and we entered our second day of oppressive heat.
Under the spectacular expanse of the Newcastle Freeway bridge and over the old Highway bridge to the screaming sound of Sunday afternoon motorcyclists. CP6 was a welcome sight. It signified our last point of contact before the finish. Again we were quick, keen to keep moving. Along the river, over the swing bridge and then the most brutal of climbs. I had what I term a “Duane’s Spur moment”. Actually I had several of them. Reminiscent of the killer climb on the Bogong run. Step after step. Huge steps. Quad straining steps. Running boy was out of sight, again. The sweat clung to my brow, the thick humidity defying any surface evaporation. My feet burned. My achilles ached. And my heart pounded in my chest. Would this never end? Spud no longer sang. We spoke only when we needed to. It was now all about finishing, nothing else. Periodically, I would see something in the bush only to find it gone moments later. I saw a car, then a shed and then a roof. Was that an elephant or just a really big rock? I looked across to a neighbouring plateau and saw a block of flats. I was hallucinating! Just great. I asked Spud if he could see the flats and they morphed back into a pile of tiered rocks. Then I remembered him asking if I could see a chair in the bush earlier. And I didn’t feel quite so silly. Well not quite so, for now anyhow. The heat was oppressive. We crossed a cool, fresh creek and filled our caps letting the icy water run down our backs. The next creek had a small waterfall and I stripped down to my shorts and dunked myself under the icy torrent. Glorious. I was tempted to immerse my shoes to cool my hot feet but so far I only had one small blister and didn’t want to push my luck. The short break was a blessing as we continued climbing and descending until we were picking our way across the sandstone escarpment. The trail was tricky to follow with small painted arrows the same colour as the fungi on the rocks. At one point Spud ran out of track and I found an arrow fashioned out of sticks pointing the way. Imagine this section in the dark? The sun was burning my neck and ears. My feet felt like I was walking on hot coals. There was little running to be had as the unseen clock ticked away. And then we spotted that Parks sign to Patonga.
After the water drop there was lots of open fire trail that should be run-able. But we were tiring, well I certainly was. The distances seemed disproportionate to the map. We wound on and on until we rounded a high headland and I heard Spud cheer up ahead. As I rounded the corner I hooted as well as I saw water and sand in the valley below. Beach. But no, it was a dam backing onto the tip. We were still miles away. The roller coaster of emotions was amplified by the intense fatigue and heat. We passed some race volunteers walking up the track and they checked our numbers and rang them in. They said we were probably still an hour and a half away! Well, at least we were assured we were on the right track.
Every turn of the map was one step closer until we hit the bitumen of Patonga Drive. We were palpably close. Jan drove alongside us and stopped to wish us well (having missed the cut at CP3). He had finished last year and his wishes were heartfelt. We were so close. We ran on, stride for stride or shuffle for shuffle. Past the Warrah Lookout and into the bush above the beach. We heard cheering and my first thought was they could see us through the trees. Then we thought it was for the presentations. Turns out Lawrence was finishing just in front of us. Down, down we went for the last time. We hit the beach and it was truly surreal. Boats were bobbing in the harbour. Kids were playing on the sand. And here we were emerging from our great adventure. And there was cheering and clapping, echoing down the beach. The jetty seemed so far away and the sand so hard to run on yet my legs knew what to do and all the pain melted away. Smiles from ear to ear we jogged across that beach soaking in all the emotion, savouring our achievement, tears of joy welling up. As we reached the finish we grabbed each other’s hand and raised them triumphantly in recognition of our partnership, the journey shared. Does it get any better than this? Thanks Spud for sticking with me and getting me across that line.
This race is about survival. It is about testing your limits, knowing when to stop and when to push on. It is about camaraderie and teamwork. It is about experiencing all the highs and lows that an ultra can dish out. It is about fantastic scenery and incredible terrain. But above all else it is a voyage of discovery. You look within yourself to see what’s there. If you’re lucky you may discover an inner strength that will lift you above the daily grind and fill you with the knowledge that you have what it takes to overcome adversity. There is a small but growing club of ultra runners who can say they have finished the GNW 100. It is a tough club to get into but definitely worth the effort. When you step onto that sand at Patonga Beach and you hear the supporters raise a cheer as one and you look at the ocean and the sand and the boats and the daily life going on all around and you realise you have emerged from the greatest adventure and no-one can take that away from you, you can’t help but want to join our club. Look into the eyes of the finishers and you will see why we do this. Thanks Dave for sharing your vision. See you all in Toronto next year.
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